We are, I think, nearing the Peruvian moment in cooking, that point where Peru's intricate interplay of high-mountain produce and flavors from the sea, of pre-Colombian tradition, European aesthetics and Asian technique, is moving from folk fusion to full-bore world cuisine.
In Lima this week, guys like Rene Redzepi, Michel Bras and Ferran Adrià gathered in a kind of haute cuisine summit. Peruvian flavors show up in Europe's best restaurants, and Peruvian cookbooks are winning global awards. Peruvian chef Gastón Acurio, who runs restaurants in half a dozen countries, has become to ceviche what Wolfgang Puck was to pizza. Visiting chefs have their minds blown by the 100 kinds of potatoes available in the markets and the sheer variety of coldwater fish caught off the coast. Twenty years ago in Lima, nearly every important restaurant was French; today, locals go out for Peruvian meals, and reportedly only one French restaurant remains.
L.A., where Peruvian was long synonymous with cheap chifa cooking, is experiencing its own Peruvian moment, although in a way — several of Nobu Matsuhisa's signature preparations are rooted in Peruvian dishes — we've been eating Peruvian dishes for years. Mo-Chica, Ricardo Zarate's stall in Mercado la Paloma, revolutionized the way L.A. looks at Peruvian cooking, with its emphasis on strong flavors and sushi-fresh ingredients, and he won a Food & Wine Best New Chef award, usually not given to chefs who run ethnic lunch counters. Chimu, whose chefs aren't even Peruvian, is serving terrific food next to the Grand Central Market. Alfred Suayo opens Peruvian-Japanese restaurant Osaka in Hollywood this week.
Zarate's Westside anticucho bar, Picca, is one of the toughest reservations in town on weekends — so popular that it occasionally runs out of beef heart, which doesn't tend to happen in real life.
Picca is a handsome, airy room, with a VIP balcony, a glassed-in kitchen and supergraphics where every other Peruvian restaurant in L.A. has 3-D wall murals of Macchu Picchu. Salsa blares; cocktails, designed by Rivera bar maestro Julian Cox, outnumber wineglasses on the tables. Waiters, almost bizarrely well-trained, stand ready to explain the nuances of rocoto chiles or the pungent black mint called huacatay, although most customers seem as if they could walk you through the basics of a cheesy huancaina sauce themselves.
Zarate's conceit here is the opposite of Nobu Matsuhisa's: Instead of inflecting Japanese small-plates cuisine with Andean flavors, he's filtering Peruvian cooking through the aesthetics of the izakaya, so that the meals you've been used to eating in L.A. Peruvian restaurants, delicious but slightly stodgy heaps of food, become delicate, prettily arranged plates meant to be shared. It's like a gastropub, except that you're drinking Pisco sours instead of beer.
Almost a year ago, Picca was announced as an anticucheria, the Peruvian equivalent of Japan's robata-ya, where the food would be cooked on a high-heat robata grill; anticuchos are at the heart of Picca's menu today. Zarate expanded the idea of anticuchos, the famous skewers of grilled, marinated beef heart sold on half the corners in central Lima, to include a lot of other things: skewered sweet potatoes with honey and fresh chile, chicken wings with lime, even cherry tomatoes with burrata and the first fresh huacatay I've ever seen outside Peru; seared scallops sluiced with chile amarillo and beef smeared with uni; miso-marinated black cod, like a primordial version of the famous Matsuhisa dish; and grilled squash with a sweetened miso paste. The skewered Santa Barbara prawns, dripping with roe, grilled just long enough to tighten the flesh, were awfully good, although like Lima street vendors, the kitchen manages to make the beef heart taste even better than filet.
As you'd expect from a Peruvian chef, especially one with years as chef at Venice sushi bar Wabi-Sabi and London fusion café Zuma (which occasionally makes lists of the best 50 restaurants in the world), Zarate is committed to ceviche, often considered the greatest Peruvian dish. His ceviches include a basic version with shellfish and halibut, a straight-ahead sea bass ceviche, and a jazzed-up crunchy version with fried squid, all with the traditional garnishes of sweet potato and giant corn. The best part of Peruvian ceviche is the leche de tigre, the thick, citrusy elixir of lime and onion in which the raw fish marinates, and my favorite ceviche here is the straight leche de tigre, spiked with uni, rocoto and chile amarillo, served chilled in shot glasses.
Zarate, probably the most prominent Peruvian cook in the U.S. at the moment, obviously is doing something right. Yet a lot of the menu feels clunky in ways that he should be able to control — the indifferently fried fish in the jalea, the glorious mixed-seafood dish of the port city Callao; the overreliance on spicy, oily emulsions; the overdressed sea bass tiradito. Most of all, there's what I suspect the kitchen thinks of as its great invention — the reinvented causas, originally a simple dish of cold mashed potatoes layered with things like avocado, chiles and crab, but here repurposed into a kind of Peruvian nigiri sushi, precisely molded oblongs of room-temperature spuds with spicy yellowtail with wasabi-marinated tobiko, or eel with avocado, or scallops. Mashed potatoes aren't seasoned sushi rice and never will be. The earthy flavors detract from rather than enhance the raw fish, and the texture feels instantly wrong.
Still, I've never had a better version of carapulcra, the freeze-dried potato stew, a standard of Inca cooking that may have been the first recorded instance of molecular cuisine; in most restaurants it tends toward a certain packing-peanut consistency but here it's tender, a little chewy and full of flavor, like the potato equivalent of salt cod. The seco de pato may have been made with duck confit, but the beery, herb-infused rice it came on tasted as if it had come from the kitchen of a Chiclayo grandmother. Arroz con erizo displayed all the complex brininess of sea urchin. A tasting menu included a tiradito of raw, well-marbled Iberico pork, briefly seared and dribbled with rocoto chile puree, and a deep, gelatinous stew of long-cooked pig's feet that could have come from a Michelin-starred restaurant in Spain.
PICCA | 9575 W. Pico Blvd., W.L.A. | (310) 277-0133 | piccaperu.com | Mon.-Thurs., 6–11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 6 p.m.–1 a.m. | AE, MC, V | Full bar | Valet parking | Starters $7-$12; causa sushi $5-$7; ceviches $9-$16; anticuchos $6-$12; main courses $9-$16 (way more for specials); desserts $7 | Recommended dishes: leches de tigre shooters; beef-heart anticuchos; carapulcra; seco de pato; tres leches cake